In California's Fertile Valley, Industry and Agriculture Hang Heavy in the Air (Undark Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

THE SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY is the land of Big Agriculture. Stretching 250 miles from Bakersfield in the south to Stockton in the north, the San Joaquin comprises the southern two-thirds of the storied Central Valley, a plowed-over promised land covering seven million acres of irrigated fields that generate more than $17 billion a year in crops — with the vast majority coming from three San Joaquin Valley counties. In sum, the region supplies a quarter of the food on American plates.

It is also awash in air pollution. Millions of beef and dairy cattle, millions of acres of dusty crops, and the truck traffic to support these mega-operations generate fine airborne particles that linger and swirl in what is, in effect, a gigantic, pollution-trapping bowl bounded by mountains. Add in prolific use of wood stoves and barbecue pits, the second-hand smog blowing into the valley from cities to the west and the north, and emissions from some of the densest oil fields in the lower 48 states, and the result is some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

California’s recent record-breaking forest fires only worsen the mix.

Read the rest at MIT’s Undark Magazine

This article was also published by Mother Jones

The Crown of the Coast (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Steve Junak sits in the back seat of the Toyota 4Runner, his eyes trained on the green-gold blur of central California vegetation like a gambler glued to a slot machine. What’s just grass to most people are sedges and rushes and ryes to Junak. Those sedges might be round fruit sedge or split awn sedge. Some of them he can distinguish from a distance. Others he might have to hold in his hand and squint at.  

It’s not easy to stump a man who spent 37 years as the herbarium curator at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden—even out here on The Nature Conservancy’s new Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, which boasts some of the highest numbers of rare species in the region. “Is Isocoma on your list?” Junak asks his companion, Laura Riege, the preserve’s restoration manager, who is scanning a checklist of plants in a binder on her lap. “We just passed a bunch of Isocoma, coast goldenbush.”

“Sure is,” says Riege, as the vehicle pulls off to the side of the dirt road, high up on a ridge overlooking the Pacific.

“And here’s Encelia, too,” Junak says, hopping out of the vehicle and pointing out the yellow blooms of bush sunflower. “This is a gold mine.”

Junak takes a full census of the botanical jackpot they’ve discovered on this June morning: morning glories to the left, coffeeberries to the right and monkey flowers straight ahead. Riege and Junak record the GPS coordinates of native plants that will provide seed stock for some upcoming coastal prairie and oak woodland restoration projects on this 24,364-acre preserve, which TNC acquired in December 2017.

The purchase was made possible by a $165 million gift—the largest single philanthropic gift in TNC's history—from Jack and Laura Dangermond. It marked the first step toward safeguarding this iconic property at Point Conception, Southern California’s “elbow” where the coast bends northward to San Francisco. The Conservancy had tried, and failed, to purchase the property in the past. It was one of the last large, privately owned and still-undeveloped coastal tracts in Southern California, making it a rarity amid one of the country’s most expensive real estate markets.

Read the rest in the Winter issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine

On the Trail with the Wild Detective (Audubon)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Some time ago in the Australian outback, a man who made his name as a Roo shooter—that is, someone who shoots kangaroos for their meat—arrived in the town of Winton with a headless carcass. This creature was not, as you might expect, a kangaroo. It was a dead bird.

Robert “Shorty” Cupitt came upon this mangled ball of feathers on September 17, 2006, while driving along a fence in Diamantina National Park in western Queensland. The bird had apparently clotheslined itself on the barbed wire. He tossed it in his truck bed, where it baked in the sun until he made it to the home of Paul Neilsen. Neilsen is the proprietor of the Tattersall Hotel, a rowdy pub packed with curios including a case full of opals, a terrarium of fossils, and a poster featuring Australia’s deadliest snakes and spiders.

“Is this what we’ve been looking for?” Cupitt asked, plunking down the specimen on the kitchen table. Neilsen’s eyes went wide. The squat parrot resembled a budgie that had inhaled a lumberjack’s breakfast. Its wing feathers were dark gray with yellow and green along their margins. The tail was banded like a bumblebee. The head, well, there was no head. But that didn’t matter. “Oh my God, yes,” Neilsen said. This was it, a Night Parrot, and a young one to boot.

Neilsen was staring at a ghost, a bird that the world had written off as extinct. The fact that it was less than a year old meant that there were more out there and they were breeding. The last time anyone collected a living Night Parrot, Australia was still a British dominion and the primary mode of transportation in the Outback was the one-humped camel. That was in 1912.

There had been sightings since, tantalizing leads that sent sane men on insane quests. In 1979, a birding guide said he spotted four, but lacked photographic proof. Eleven years later, an ornithologist scooped up a corpse on a roadside. After that, nothing. The Night Parrot became the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Down Under. “Every young male ornithologist has spent their holidays going out looking for the bird for the last hundred years,” says Penny Olsen, an ecologist whose book Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird was published in September.

Neilsen envisioned stuffing the decapitated bird and putting it on display. Cupitt, who had traded in his hunting rifle for a job as a Queensland Parks ranger, claims he immediately notified his higher-ups. But the squishy truth is that instead of passing the bird on to authorities, Neilsen stashed it in a freezer while he contacted the one man whom he could trust: John Young, a.k.a. the Wild Detective. “He’s one of Australia’s leading ornithologists,” Neilsen told me. “Except he doesn’t have a degree.”

Young was then in his late fifties, the Looney Tunes version of a naturalist with a floppy brimmed hat, white mutton chops, and drawn-on facial expressions. An egg-collecting scofflaw in his youth, Young had such a knack for finding species others thought unfindable that David Attenborough sought his services when filming documentaries, airing a segment with him on The Life of Birds. Young also spearheaded conservation initiatives, assisted on research projects, made media appearances, and had his own nature film series.

By the time Neilsen contacted him, however, Young was in a dark place. He had long been dogged by allegations that he was a world-class fibber, a spinner of bush tales. Then, in November 2006, Greg Roberts, a reporter and accomplished birder, suggested in an article in the Australian newspaper that Young had manipulated photos to support his claim of discovering a new parrot. Young’s wife then walked out on him. When Neilsen called, he loaded up his Land Cruiser and drove to Winton, in single-minded pursuit of the Night Parrot.

It took six years of searching, 200,000 miles of driving, weeks-long stretches without bathing, close encounters with venomous snakes. In July 2013, Young returned to civilization and presented to an awestruck auditorium at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane a video of a Night Parrot bounding along the ground. “The equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an Outback roadhouse” is how the editor of Birdlife Australia described the find.

The rediscovery promised a fresh start for the Night Parrot and, quite possibly, for John Young. After all, he was the only person in the bird world who knew where to find it. For the moment, at least, the fate of the species was entirely in his hands.

Read the rest in the Fall issue of Audubon magazine

Will Smith: The Jump

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Will Smith Bungee Jumps To Celebrate 50th Birthday

WILL SMITH JUMPS FOR CHARITY: Watch live as Will Smith bungee jumps out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon to celebrate his 50th birthday! All the proceeds go towards Global Citizen's education campaigns 🎉

Posted by NowThis on Tuesday, September 25, 2018

On September 25th, Will Smith bungee jumped from a helicopter over the Grand Canyon. I worked as a science consultant on segments related to the science of fear, the physics of bungee jumping, and the formation of the Grand Canyon. I wrote scripts, drafted interview questions, and planned graphics and animations.

Groomed to Death (Hakai and Smithsonian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


As Gavin Andrus takes a seat at the helm of a green John Deere tractor, it’s still dark out at the Santa Monica Pier. The stationary Ferris wheel is silhouetted against the city sky, and unseen waves crash against the pilings and lap against the sandy shore. The rhythmic onslaught brings with it the flotsam and jetsam of modern society: plastic grocery bags, cigarette butts, straws. Some of this refuse may have been expelled from the city storm drains. Some of it may have been cast off by thoughtless beachgoers the day before. And some of it may have been borne on the currents, washing in from Mexico or Japan or who knows where.

For the next five hours or so, Andrus’s job is to clean up as much of it as possible before the crowds arrive. He has the south side of the pier. Two other tractors will take care of the north. “Grandma needs a new facelift every day,” he tells me when I hop in the cab with him a little after sunrise. Behind him, the rake attached to the tractor kicks up a kaleidoscope of colored plastic and broken glass, churning in a vortex of liquified sand.

Read the rest at Hakai or Smithsonian

Anti-Vaxxers Are Targeting a Vaccine for a Virus Deadlier Than Ebola (The Atlantic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Cedars Ernest was a certifiable goofball. He was a purebred Shire, a type of British draft horse that once specialized in hauling carts of ale. Nicknamed Ernie, he tipped the scales at more than a ton, and had a chocolate-brown coat with luxuriant white hair feathering his hooves. His owner, Nicole Carloss, a horse trainer in Queensland, Australia, adopted him in 2013, when he was 7 years old, and he immediately found his place in her family.

“He would burst open the screen door and try to do the dishes with you,” Carloss said. When her children played in their sandbox, Ernie would plop his front hooves down next to them. Carloss took Ernie to compete in shows throughout the state, where he would strut around with a sequined browband. “He stole everybody’s heart,” she said.

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In August 2016, Carloss came home from work and headed out to the fenced pasture to visit Ernie. He lifted his head dolefully, like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. His eyes were empty, his breathing was strange, and he wobbled when he walked. Carloss suspected he might have been bitten by a snake, but she saw no fang marks on his legs.

She called a local veterinarian and described Ernie’s symptoms. The vet asked Carloss if her horse had been vaccinated for Hendra.

“No,” she replied.

Carloss had anticipated the question, but that didn’t make it any less unsettling. Hendra is a deadly virus that is endemic in Australia and is spread by bats. Since the first documented outbreak in horses in 1994, Hendra has killed 102 of the animals. It kills people, too: On seven occasions, it has crossed from sick horses to the veterinarians and other professionals attending them, leading to four excruciating deaths. For the last six years, the animal-pharmaceutical company Zoetis—previously a Pfizer subsidiary—has sold a vaccine called Equivac to prevent horses from contracting the virus.

Read the rest at The Atlantic

How colleges can prepare for students with autism (The Atlantic & Spectrum)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Kieran Barrett-Snyder was a star student at his high school on Long Island in New York. He had a gift for mathematics and science, and was accepted into all seven of the colleges he applied to. He decided on New York University (NYU), both because it has a strong engineering program and because it is close to his home.

During Barrett-Snyder’s first semester in 2014, he did well in all his classes, except for labs that required written reports — a task that felt overwhelming to him. He became so anxious about his workload that at one point he started to feel his heart pounding hard in his chest. “It hurt to lay down,” he recalls.

Barrett-Snyder has autism, and he has felt anxiety for much of his life. But this was more intense than usual. His symptoms persisted for several days, until his mother took him to the emergency room, where he learned he had been having an extended panic attack. He hadn’t taken any psychiatric medications since his most disruptive behaviors had tapered off at around age 9. After the panic attack, though, he started taking pills for anxiety and depression. He also decreased his workload and got on track over the rest of the year.

Then, in his second year at the university, he ended up in a dormitory with two neurotypical students he didn’t connect with, and started avoiding the common area when they were around. One of the suitemates had his girlfriend over all the time, which made Barrett-Snyder even more uncomfortable. He stayed in his room for long stretches, stopped showering and survived on Oreo cookies. It was a vicious cycle: The longer he was in his room, the more self-conscious he felt. “I just felt disgusting most of the time, so I didn’t want to be seen,” he says.

He lost 25 pounds, felt weak and depressed, and was failing several classes. That December, his mother suggested that he take some time off. The only support NYU had offered to him was extended time on tests. “When I approached them about his difficulties,” she recalls, “their response was: ‘Maybe he belongs at a different school.’”

For any young adult, going away to college involves many firsts: the first time living alone, the first time making their own schedule, maybe the first time cooking their own meals. As difficult as this transition is for typical students, it can be especially disorienting for young people on the spectrum, who may also find it difficult to sleep enough, collaborate with others on group projects and advocate for themselves with professors.

Despite those challenges, increasing numbers of young adults with autism have set their sights on a college degree: More than 200,000 students on the spectrum will arrive on campuses around the United States over the next decade, based on statistics from the National Center for Special Education Research. And for the most part, experts say, these students are entering an educational system that is not ready for them. High school comes with a support system — family at home, therapists nearby, special-education classes — but colleges have traditionally embraced a sink-or-swim mentality.

Under U.S. federal law, college students with disabilities are permitted to receive special accommodations, including extra time on exams and extended deadlines. But these allowances usually fall short of the needs of students with autism. Many students on the spectrum require support that extends beyond the classroom into their social and personal lives, such as reminders to do their laundry regularly or help finding study partners. They also have high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, which can worsen in new situations. “Colleges are trying to cope with this expanding mental-health crisis,” says Fred Volkmar, professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at Yale University. “They don’t quite know what to do.”

Read the rest at Spectrum

Read the rest at The Atlantic

Hawai'i's Last Outlaw Hippies (Hakai)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The first person I meet in the Kalalau Valley is a shoeless veteran from the Iraq War with a sun-faded REI backpack slung over his tattooed shoulders like a trophy. Barca, as he calls himself, heard that a kayaker had abandoned the pack in a beach cave and made a beeline out to the bluffs to claim it.

Visitors are always just throwing stuff away in this place. Over here, a folding chair with a broken arm rest. Over there, a half-empty fuel canister. Now, the backpack—that’s a rare find. “Do you know how much these are worth?” Barca asks me.

In, like, dollars? Ten, tops.

“A lot!” he says without waiting for my answer.

Barca, who is 34, subsists as a scavenger deep inside the Nāpali Coast State Park on Kaua‘i’s west coast. The centerpiece of this 2,500-hectare park—the Kalalau Valley—forms a natural amphitheater that opens to the ocean and the ocean alone. The valley’s steep, green walls rise up on three sides like curtains, sealing it off from the island’s interior. Glassy threads of water are tucked into every crease of these walls, cascading down from a height greater than Yosemite Falls. First farmed by Polynesian settlers centuries ago, this remote paradise is nothing short of a feral garden, a breadbasket bursting with nearly everything a crafty human specimen needs to survive. “This is the closest that mankind has come to making Eden,” Barca says. “When the avos are in season, we eat avos. When the mangoes are in season, we eat mangoes.”

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

The California Effect (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


In early May, the dogwood trees in the Clinch Valley of far southwestern Virginia are in full bloom, looking like puffballs of white confetti bursting amid the tree canopy. Situated on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, the Clinch is a special place, home to more than 100 species of trees with evocative names like sourwood, bitternut hickory and shagbark hickory that were coined back in the pioneer days when the place was Daniel Boone’s stomping grounds.

Greg Meade, a Nature Conservancy forester, is driving his pickup from the valley’s bottomland cattle pasture up into the steep hillside woodlands. “The complexity of our forests is unmatched in the lower 48,” Meade says. He can start his day in a yellow pine forest and be tromping through a fern-filled, moss-covered spruce rainforest by lunchtime.

Meade’s job isn’t so much about deciding which trees to cut but which ones to leave standing. Big ones, mostly.

He is promoting a reversal of the way that privately owned forests in Appalachia have been managed for the past century. Landowners once saw their forests as emergency piggy banks that they could tap into in times of need, bringing in loggers to chop down the most valuable hardwoods, such as black cherry and oaks, with no thought given to which trees would repopulate. This shortsighted approach led these forests to lose the diversity that sustains their economic and ecological value. Having forests with trees of different ages helps facilitate regrowth, while maintaining a mix of species can protect these forests from diseases.

The Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program launched in 2002 and now protects 22,000 acres, thanks largely to California’s new carbon market. The Clinch Valley program established partnerships between TNC and private landowners to better manage these working forests and ensure they remain intact rather than being developed. With the last free-flowing tributaries to the Tennessee River, the Clinch Valley boasts the nation’s highest concentrations of endangered fish and freshwater mussels, which depend on the clean water that healthy forests provide by reducing erosion.

As it happened, at the same time on the other side of the country, California’s government was confronting the state’s substantial role in contributing to climate change. If California were a separate country, it would have ranked as the world’s 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, falling between Spain and Poland. In 2006, implementing new state law, California created a cap-and-trade system designed to first freeze and then reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of  power producers, transportation and manufacturers in the state.

That system has had profound effects on climate emissions and conservation in California. “When I started working on this,” says Louis Blumberg, the head of TNC’s California climate program, “California was the eighth-largest economy in the world and the 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Today California is the sixth-largest economy and the 19th-largest emitter.” And California’s program is also having a dramatic impact throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The cap-and-trade program opened up a new chapter in Virginia’s Clinch Valley. The forests that Meade manages act as a sponge for carbon dioxide. With each growing season, the trees lock away climate-warming gas in their swelling trunks. Under California’s cap-and-trade program, California polluters could offset a portion of their emissions by paying forestry projects like Meade’s to keep their forests intact.

“California recognizes that nature is a powerful tool to address climate change,” says Blumberg. “Their cap-and-trade program is catalyzing forest conservation programs across the United States.” California’s successful comprehensive program makes it one of the leading government entities to tackle climate change in a serious way.

The program is supporting scores of forest conservation projects from Virginia to Alaska, including several led by TNC. It is also demonstrating that, even as President Donald Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, American states, cities and businesses can not only take action on climate change on their own, they can do so in ways that generate economic benefits and grow economies.

Read the rest in the Winter issue of Nature Conservancy magazine

Inside the Mind of Thru-Hiking's Most Devious Con Man (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


As I learned about Caldwell’s exploits, I wondered if there was something about the outdoor community and our sympathy for such wanderers that may make us especially easy marks. When we see a man with a trail-worn Gore-Tex jacket and a decade-old Dana Designs backpack, we instinctively trust him. We can’t help but envy his authenticity, his freedom. He’s not just a weekend warrior—he’s living the life we want. Or at least, that’s how it seems.

For six weeks, I texted Caldwell at a number that Trent had given me, but he never responded. Then, on June 27, he finally sent me a text along with a photo of himself sporting a blue flannel shirt while lounging on a rolled-up fleece in a pine forest. When we spoke on the phone a couple days later, I could hear birds chirping. At first he told me he was in northern Arizona. Later, he claimed he was near the popular Barr Trail on Pikes Peak. “I know Pikes Peak,” he said, “I can hide on this mountain for a long time.”
He agreed to speak with me because he hoped that, by coming clean in public, he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of anyone ever again. “There has got to be a reason why I’m here,” he said. “There’s got to be. It can’t be to keep scamming people.”

Read the story at Outside Magazine

Can You Cure Autism? (Slate and Spectrum News)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


From the moment her 18-month-old son Sam was diagnosed with autism, Elizabeth B., or Liz, found it difficult to accept. When Sam failed to make much progress in an early intervention program and, later, at a special-needs preschool in Manhattan, Liz consulted with his speech therapist. The therapist suggested Liz look into the Son-Rise Program, taught at the Option Institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America in western Massachusetts. (Liz asked that we not mention her last name, out of concern for her and her son’s privacy.)

The name rang a bell with Liz. She had a vague recollection of seeing a 1979 made-for-TV movie called Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love. In the movie, New York advertising executive Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife “cure” their son’s autism at home, spending more than eight hours a day immersed in his world and copying his behaviors.

The therapy seemed worth a shot. So in August 2005, Liz and her husband paid $1,623 in fees, left Sam, then almost 4, with a family friend, and drove to the institute’s 100-acre campus for a five-day Son-Rise “startup” class. The angular brown buildings scattered in the woods give the institute the look of a New Age monastery. Adding to the monastic vibe, participants are advised to leave their valuables at home because the dormitory doors lock only from the inside.

Liz hadn’t anticipated how deeply the experience would affect her. Having a child with autism can feel isolating, and because Sam didn’t participate in school activities or have friends, she had few friends herself. But on the first day of the Son-Rise Program, as she took a seat on the floor of the lecture hall with about 100 other parents, she immediately felt at ease. “You have a powerful sense that you are with cousins,” she says.

On Tuesday evening, Barry Neil Kaufman, known as “Bears,” made his rounds in the dining hall, clad in his usual getup: a blazer and a black turtleneck. Liz found his message of love and acceptance intoxicating and, for the first time since Sam’s diagnosis, felt she had a way to help her son. When Kaufman spoke of children with autism as having limitless potential, his words resonated strongly with Liz.

Over the next four years, she spent nearly $50,000 on Option Institute programs, both for Sam and for her husband and herself, and to train as a mentor for other parents. Although that amount may seem extreme, she is hardly alone: More than 30,000 families from more than 120 countries have participated in the Son-Rise Program over the past three decades, according to the institute. Some families pay full price to attend multiple courses, others receive scholarships from the institute, and a few even resort to crowdfunding. “Your generosity would allow our beloved son to experience the best treatment available,” reads one plea to raise $25,000 on the GoFundMe website.

The prices at the institute are especially steep given that states such as California and New York pay for a wide range of evidence-based interventions. Son-Rise startup classes are advertised as $2,200 per parent; an “intensive” course, attended by parents and children, can run to $18,000. “Should you be selling your house to pay for this extraordinarily expensive program?” asks Catherine Lord, founding director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York. “That’s where we are getting worried.”

Investing in Son-Rise, experts say, is a little like buying a lottery ticket. “I’m not aware of any rigorous scientific evidence that supports it,” says Fred Volkmar, head of the Autism Program at Yale University. There are no independent clinical trials or scientific studies of Son-Rise to back the institute’s claims that the program “helps parents cure their children in some cases” and “achieve significant improvement in almost all cases.”

At the same time, autism researchers express frustration that the Kaufmans discourage parents from combining Son-Rise with proven behavioral therapies and direct them instead toward alternative treatments, such as horse therapy and homeopathy. Some former employees Spectrum interviewed describe the institute as rule-bound, lacking in transparency, and focused on fundraising. The Kaufmans, they say, control nearly every detail of the program and demand unstinting loyalty from staff and commitment from families.

Bryn Hogan, executive director of the institute’s Autism Treatment Center of America and the Kaufmans’ daughter, says that the center welcomes more research on its programs and that the criticism it’s received is unfair or inaccurate. “People tend to be suspicious of things they don’t fully understand,” she says.

Read the rest at Slate

Flight School (National Geographic)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


They move so fast that human eyes see only a hovering spot of color, a blur of wings. But when frozen in time by high-speed cameras, hummingbirds reveal their secrets.

In pursuit of the world’s smallest bird, we’ve come to the backyard of a flamingo pink house in Palpite, Cuba. Ornithologist Christopher Clark has a car full of gear to unload: cameras, sound equipment, a sheer cube-shaped cage. Within minutes of arriving this May morning, Clark is spinning around in circles. He’s trying to follow the path of a bullet with wings as it whizzes from one clump of orange fire bush blossoms to the next. When the hummingbird pauses to draw sugary fuel from the flowers, his wings continue to beat a grayish blur too fast for the human eye to resolve.

Read the rest at National Geographic

Have Gun, Will Run (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

We're not saying you need to prepare for societal collapse or anything, but Brendan Borrell did feel a need to improve his game in case zombies attack. He signed up for the Survival Trial, a grueling test of field skills and marksmanship held in the wilds of northern New Mexico. Did this city feller come back in one piece?

I'm in the back office when I hear Jake's screams echo across the factory floor. We have no idea what's happening, only that there's no 911 to call--not out here.

I’ve got my everyday carry tucked into my holster—a Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, with a bullet in the chamber and seven in the magazine. I slip extra ammo into my back pocket and yank my 12-gauge out of a bag. This isn’t your grandpa’s duck gun, either: it’s a matte black Mossberg 500 Tactical Persuader, a tough piece of metal that meets military standards. The chk-chk of the pump action is calibrated to tell all the goblins to buzz off.

I’m the last person you’d expect to see packing heat, but after the crash things have gotten freaky out here in Arena Heights, our little make-believe town in northern New Mexico. Looting, home invasions, assaults, you name it. It’s basically WROL— without rule of law. As one of my buddies at the shooting range likes to say: “The cops are five minutes away—when you need them in five seconds.”

I tell my partner to wait as I follow a pair of tire tracks to a couple of orange cones in a dusty clearing. To the west, the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains seem to levitate above the horizon: a thin white mirage of tranquility. I stash my shotgun in a bush and go crashing down a fresh trail marked with neon splotches of surveyor’s paint. Around the corner, Jake is lying motion less in the dirt. He’s a meaty fellow, the size and shape of two truck tires. In fact, he is two truck tires, linked together with PVC pipe to represent an incapacitated colleague. I tug on his rubbery shoulders, dragging him back to the safe zone.

The task leaves me panting. I clutch my widow-maker, sweat burning my eyes. The four targets are lined up on the hillside. Ready. Aim. Gasp! I’m puffing so hard that I can’t hold the sight steady. I drop the muzzle. Thirty seconds pass and I raise the gun again. Pow! The first clay target explodes. Chk-chk! I send the next three back to oblivion. I’m feeling downright cocky, but those targets are only ten yards out. Next up: eight metal plates hanging from a crossbar, roughly 15 yards away. I draw my pistol and miss every one.

After racing back to the starting line and tagging my teammate, I see Jon Weiler standing on the edge of the dirt road, gazing down at the valley below like a scout watching for an ambush. He looks at me approvingly. “That was very good,” he says, Yoda-like.

Read this story in the June 2017 issue of Outside

Rachel Atherton Goes Big (Outside)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Downhill mountain bikes weren’t designed to go up. They’re heavy as hell and have the wrong gear ratio, and the best that you can hope for is a ride on a chairlift or in the back of a truck. Failing that, you’re pushing. Which, for most of us, is no fun.

Than again, most of us aren’t Rachel Atherton. It’s early October, and she’s on the side of a grassy slope in northern England, rolling her powder-blue Trek alongside her as though it’s filled with helium. Her full-face helmet hangs from her handlebars, and her frizzy blonde hair is twisted into a bun. Atherton, 29, has a smile on her face, the kind of contented smile that comes when you’re the world’s top female downhiller and have just wrapped up a perfect season.

And today, she just gets to ride. It’s the warm-up for the Red Bull Foxhunt, a mass-start race where 220 women will set off down a track as Atherton tries to overtake them from behind. “I’m amazed by how the women all feed off each other,” Atherton says. “The main thing I want to get across is how confident it makes you feel to tackle a whole mountain on a bike.”

At the base of the hill, many of the competitors have boyfriends or husbands in tow, schlepping baby carriages and fetching energy bars from the base. Amelia Taylor, a 36-year-old mother and amateur racer, points to her 15-month-old daughter, Phoebe. “She’s been coming to bike events since she was five weeks old.”

Signing up for the Foxhunt is like getting a backstage pass to Atherton. Everywhere she goes, competitors pull her aside for selfies, to which she unfailing responds with a “Yes, please!” At a slippery off-camber section of the course, where the racers are sliding into one another in three-bike pileups, Atherton pauses to hold court. “Drop your outside foot, and then this foot is in the air or dabbing along and you can lean in loads,” she says. A few seconds later, a rider comes flying down. “Nice! Nice, nice! Holy mother! Yeah, woo!” she hollers.

Read the rest at Outside

Going underground: inside the world of the mole-catchers (The Guardian)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A bitter battle is raging within the mole-catching community over the kindest way to carry out their deadly work

Roger Page purchased his home in East Bilney, a Norfolk farming community, about 25 years ago. For the better part of those 25 years, he bore no ill will toward the moles. He was fond of wildlife, or at least what little of it remained in the country. A family of deer foraged in the backyard. Foxes lolled in the road at dusk. Moles were a rarity.

Page worked as a commercial pilot and when the occasional molehill erupted on his lawn, he would pat it down before departing again to New York or Hong Kong. They seemed to have an understanding, he and the moles. They mostly kept to the woods, while Page mostly kept to the garden.

But after he retired five years ago, Page expanded his back lawn and the moles became more persistent. As more and more molehills sprung up, Page came to feel as if their labours were engineered to produce in him the maximum anguish. He purchased traps at the garden centre, but they would often remain unsprung or – worse – sprung and empty.

He decided to escalate his counter-assault. During a stopover in Amsterdam, he bought a pungent bag of flower bulbs advertised as a natural mole deterrent. (The moles didn’t mind.) Next, he installed a solar-powered mole repeller, a torpedo-shaped device that emits vibrations that are supposed to keep the moles away. (The moles carried on.) He tried flooding them out with a water hose. (Moles are strong swimmers.) Finally, he tried suffocating them with the exhaust of his lawnmower. (Moles can survive in low‑oxygen environments.)

Read the rest at the Guardian